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Wanting

Historical fiction linking colonial Tasmania with Dickens’ London

Content warning: racism, colonisation

This book wasn’t my first choice and it didn’t have a particularly auspicious beginning. In my one and only attempt at a blind date with a book, at a bookstore with the punny name Hooked on Books which has long since closed in the coastal town Batemans Bay, I found myself unhappily with a book that was fourth in a series that had not read. Now, I appreciate that the point of a blind date with a book is that you get a book wrapped in brown paper and have no idea what might be inside. However, I didn’t really think it was in the spirit of the exercise to wrap a book that you needed to have read the first three in the series to appreciate. Anyway, I reluctantly asked to swap, and they reluctantly agreed, and I walked away with this book. It sat on my bookshelf half unwrapped for three years, and when I found myself with a second Flanagan book on my to-read pile, I thought it was about time I read the first.

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“Wanting” by Richard Flanagan is a historical fiction novel about the explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane Franklin, his stint as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land and the cultural impact of his disappearance while on an arctic expedition. The book mostly splits between the story of Mathinna, an Aboriginal girl adopted then soon after abandoned by the Franklins, and Charles Dickens’ involvement in a play inspired by Sir Franklin’s disappearance. The two stories are connected not only by the Franklins, but by the theme of desire.

I really liked the beginning of this novel. The Protector is a fantastic character in his abhorrence and Flanagan’s sense of dramatic irony is second to none. I felt like it was a strong start and Flanagan captured the brutality, the indifference and the arbitrariness of colonisation and the devastating impact it had on the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. Flanagan is a strong writer and brings to life the terrible contrast between the increasing affluence of the white settlers, and the increasing desolation of the indigenous population.

The beginning was good, but there were so many things that irked me about this book. The juxtaposition between Dickens’ chapters and Mathinna’s chapters was jarring. I can see what Flanagan was trying to do, but I just don’t think it got there. Neither Dickens nor Franklin were compelling enough characters and I honestly eye-rolled my entire way through each of Dickens’ chapters. Mathinna was much more compelling, but I was very unhappy with the way that she was handled. Her story was told as a tragedy, and instead of giving her any agency at all, Flanagan depicts her as a victim subjected to horrific (and, in my opinion, largely unnecessary) violence.

This actually isn’t the first book I have read about the Franklins and Mathinna, and a lot of the criticisms I had about that book, I am going to echo again here. I just don’t think that the story of what happened to the original people of Tasmania needs to be bolstered by shoehorning in figures from the British literary scene of the 1800s. I wish that Flanagan had just excised the entire Dickens story and had stuck with Tasmania. The Franklins weren’t that interesting, and I wasn’t sure that cutting Franklin’s daughter Eleanor out was particularly strategic either because that was a missed opportunity for exploring the family’s interaction with Mathinna.

Anyway, I think that Mathinna’s story needs to be told and that someone, probably one of the incredible Aboriginal writers being published at the moment, needs to do it justice.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

The Bell Jar

Classic literature about a young woman living with depression

Content warning: mental illness, depression, suicide

This is a book that really doesn’t need an introduction. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain where I found my copy. It has no price on it. It’s a 2005 edition so the pages are starting to yellow a little but it’s in good condition. Maybe I found it in my street library, or someone else’s. I’ve had it sitting on my to-read shelf for a long time and, look, I’m not going to lie, I picked it up and put it down a few times, but eventually I managed to settle into it.

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The backdrop of this photo is from Issue 1 of Lost Magazine, unfortunately no longer in print. The photographer of the model is Simon Tubey.

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath is a novel about Esther, a university student in her late teens who wins a prestigious summer internship in New York with a group of eleven other young women. From a lower middle-class family in Boston, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime for Esther. However, up close, the lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as she anticipated. When her run of winning scholarships and opportunities suddenly runs dry, Esther’s mental state plummets and after attempting suicide she is admitted to a psychiatric ward.

It’s difficult to read this book entirely as fiction given that Plath herself died after committing suicide shortly after its publication. It is beautifully written and over 50 years after publication is still refreshing in its frankness. There is a brilliant scene early in the book where after attending a very fancy function, the entire contingent falls ill with food poisoning. It sounds a bit trite to say, but this book reads like it must have been far ahead of its time. Plath is scathing about how meaningless the work at the magazine is, and depicts the way Esther’s cynicism begins to bleed into everything and how she fails to find meaning in her life in nothing short of a brilliant way. I also thought that Plath’s description of life in a psychiatric ward, and the experimental and harmful treatments from the time that Esther is put through, was both horrifying and very well done.

When reading books that were written long ago, I always get the strange feeling that nothing and everything is different. There were certainly plenty of observations that Plath made about sex, sexism, the commodification of beauty and class that still hold true today. However, one of the most difficult things about reading older books is seeing the way that race – even indirectly – was handled. There are quite a few instances where Esther compares her own appearance unfavourably towards people of different ethnicities or describes a person of colour’s appearance in a stereotyped way, and honestly, it is jarring when it happens. I also wasn’t super happy with how Joan, Esther’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend who is also a lesbian, was handled. And yes, yes, I know that people are a product of their times, but that doesn’t make people intrinsically right and ideas and attitudes, no matter how reflective of the time they were expressed in, can never be immune to criticism.

This is a short, sharp novel that is an illuminating snapshot of the time and still, to this day, has a lot to say about mental health, gender equality and class. It is difficult to separate the book from the author’s own life, but it does stand on its own and remains a cutting and raw exposé of life as a young woman struggling with mental illness and straddling a class divide.

 

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The Strawberry Thief

Fourth installment in the “Chocolat” series

Warning: this review contains spoilers for “Chocolat”, “The Lollypop Shoes” and “Peaches for Monsieur le Curé”

I’m an enormous Joanne Harris fan, and I’ve been reading her books since I came across one in a house my family stayed at in the south of France when I was a teenager. I loved the first book in this series, and it was probably one of my earliest forays into magic realism. As more books in the series have been released sporadically over the years, I’ve religiously bought and read them. I didn’t think there was going to be another one, but as soon as I saw that there was, I rushed to the bookstore to buy it. Unfortunately, I was a couple of days to soon for the release date, so I tried again a few days later and secured myself a copy.

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“The Strawberry Thief” by Joanne Harris is the fourth installment in the “Chocolat” series. In this book, Vianne Rocher is back living in the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Although she is back working in a chocolate shop, Vianne is going through a transition phase. Her daughter Anouk has moved away to Paris to live with her boyfriend, her other daughter Rosette, isolated by her disability, is spending more and more time alone and Roux seems to be pulling away from her. When a tattoo artist called Morgane moves into the shop across the way, Vianne fears that someone else has come to try to steal her daughters away from her. However, when Rosette inherits a piece of land, the community is thrown into a spin and the unlikely person left to solve the mystery of the recently deceased Narcisse is the local priest Raynaud.

Harris is an exquisite writer, and I love how this series has grown over time. When “Chocolat” was first published, Vianne was strong, feisty and idealistic. She blew into Lansquenet on a wild wind with Anouk with big plans. As time goes on, and she has a daughter with a disability, Vianne changes. She becomes more concerned with fitting in, with being accepted, and somewhere along the line she changes from being a mysterious witch to a small business owner. Even though she loves her daughters more than anything, she is starting to grieve their transition into adulthood and is finding it hard to imagine her life without them. Vianne also experiences a lot of guilt as a mother of a child with disability.  I thought that Harris really captured Vianne’s point of view in a way that would resonate with a lot of people.

This book is also really the first book that has shown Rosette’s perspective as a person with disability. Rosette has cri du chat syndrome, and because of her appearance and difficulties with verbal speech, she struggles to find acceptance. I felt that Harris did a really good job of balancing Rosette’s inner voice with her outer voice, and how she goes through the motions of trying to find her own independent life.

I think that the one thing that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with was the way that Harris connected magic with Rosette’s disability. Without giving too much away, there is a part in the book that suggests that Rosette’s disability is caused by some kind of cantrip and that if the spell can be broken, her disability will, if not cured, be significantly reduced. I completely see what Harris was trying to do and tie in the themes of the series together with the realities of living with and parenting someone with a disability. I think that despite the way Harris approached the rest of the book, it was this part that suggested that Rosette’s problem was her difficulties in communicating, and not the failure of her community to adapt, make adjustments and include her.

This series has changed over time, but at its heart it is a series about motherhood. Harris is a flexible and beautiful writer and each book grows and explores new issues as society grows. This is a perfect pick-me-up over a cup of hot chocolate.

 

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The Human Part

Finnish family drama

I’m a little guilty about the way I came about this book. My partner actually found it on the street somewhere, like someone had left it on the roof of a car and had forgotten about it when they had driven off. Naturally, he gave it to me, and, when I saw that it was a library book, naturally I had every intention of returning it. However, because I have an interest in lost books, I thought it would be a good idea to read it first. Ah, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I put it on my to-read shelf, and completely forgot about it, and then I realised it had been a really long time since we had found that book. Worried that it would be wildly overdue and would have racked up an enormous amount of fines, I raced through it and returned it to the library insistent on paying them. The librarian, who was very polite, told me that she could not let me pay the fines due to their privacy policies, but reassured me that the fines were small (I actually have the number $7 in my mind) and that she would explain it to her supervisor and try to get the fines waived.

“The Human Part” by Kari Hotakainen and translated by Owen F. Witesman is a novel about an elderly woman called Salme who, while attending a writer’s festival with her daughter, reluctantly agrees to sell her life story to an author experiencing writer’s block. She and her husband, who has stopped speaking, could use the money. As her story and the story of her adult children emerges during their tense meetings together, it is suggested that the author is taking some creative license. Soon he is imagining what Salme’s children must be thinking and doing, and then another character is introduced who will change everything.

I really struggled with this book. Sometimes it’s tempting to give the author the benefit of the doubt and throw the translator under the bus, but it wasn’t the writing that bothered me about this story. Rather, it was clear that this was meant to be a story about people and connection and relationships, but all the characters, with the slight exception of Salme, seemed like cardboard cutouts. Salme’s adult children are depicted as dysfunctional in their own ways (and, to be honest, I think there were three of them but I can only remember two clearly) but apart from their social issues, there wasn’t really much to remember about them.

Hotakainen touches on issues like poverty, mental health and work politics, but never quite manages to say anything particularly meaningful. The story sort of meanders from person to person without ever really finding its voice. The narrative structure, using stories within stories and moving from one character to the next exploring the connections in between, reminded me a lot of a film I saw a long time ago. I think the film did it better.

A rather flat book that sadly didn’t quite seem like it was worth the rigmarole of keeping it to read instead of returning it straightaway.

 

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The Poppy War

East-Asian-inspired epic military fantasy

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club and one that I was looking forward to. One of my annual reading goals is to read more diversely, and if ever there was a genre in dire need of more diversity, it is fantasy. I bought a copy for my Kobo and managed to read most of it before the book club.

The Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1)

“The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang is a story about a young girl called Rin who lives with her rather unsavoury foster parents. When the Fangs try to marry her off to an old, rich merchant Rin manages to negotiate being permitted to study for the prestigious and extremely difficult exams known as the Keju. With her sights set on admission to the military academy called Sinegard, Rin’s class and gender look set to be almost insurmountable obstacles. However, when Rin achieves the impossible, she finds herself on a mad path to studying a mad art with an even madder teacher. When war breaks out, Rin finds herself faced with even more difficult choices – choices that may not work and may cost her everything.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but if there is anything I have learned about myself it is that military fiction is not my cup of tea. Kuang is a spirited writer who imbues Rin with an enormous amount of vitality, courage and determination. The writing is good and the setting is fascinating, and some of my favourite scenes in the book is when Rin first finds herself in the city of Nikan and later when she joins her friend at his luxurious home.

It was the story, however, that I struggled with. It is your classic fantasy bildungsroman where an orphan child discovers talent, joins a school and learns arcane skills to defeat the dark…whatever. As admirable as Rin is, I actually found the peripheral characters like her delightful friend Kitay and the compelling Nezha more interesting than her. While the story started out quite strong, I felt that it soon began to lag. With the introduction, exams, school, training, assignment, war, missions and various discoveries along the way, it’s little wonder that this book bloats at over 500 pages. By the time I got to a major battle, I was feeling pretty worn out by the whole thing and there was so, so much more to go after that.

I also felt that Kuang’s great passion is clearly military history, and despite it also being a fantasy book, the focus is much more on the detail of combat, strategy, battles and power than it is about magic. I completely appreciate Kuang’s expertise in the Second Sino-Japanese War (the inspiration for this book), but I struggled to match her enthusiasm. The magic that is used seems to be unclear, inexplicable and highly dependent on the whims of beings from another plane. I think that the book would have benefited from some of the more rigid principles of writing magic to make the magic more accessible to the reader and therefore more meaningful when used.

This is an epic book that spans years of training, conflict and war and while I was probably looking for more fantasy than military and found it a bit of a slog, I’m sure that there would be plenty of people out there who would find this thrilling.

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Swing Time

Novel about race, class and fame

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, and gosh did I take a long time to get around to reading it. I’m not quite sure why, but I picked it up from my to-read pile, thumbed through a page or two, the put it back down more times than I can count. By the time I did read it, it was well past the publication date.

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“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is a novel about an unnamed biracial narrator who grows up in a London housing estate with her mother, who has Jamaican heritage, and her white father. Obsessed with black and white dance musicals, the narrator takes lessons at a community dance class where she meets another biracial girl called Tracey. Despite living in the same disadvantaged area, the narrator’s autodidact mother is scornful of Tracey, her white mother and her absent father. Nevertheless, Tracey and the narrator become fast friends, united by location and a love for dance (although Tracey is far more talented). As the narrator grows up, she gradually loses touch with Tracey and eventually becomes the personal assistant for a white, narcissistic pop star called Aimee. When Aimee decides on a whim to build a school in a West African country, the narrator is the one left to implement the plan. Although growing up black and disadvantaged by British standards, the narrator is initially unprepared for life in West Africa, and struggles to connect with the people that they are trying to help. As time goes on, the narrator’s relationship with her parents, Aimee and Tracey begin to bleed together and become more and more fraught.

This is a complex and ambitious book that tackles issues of race, class, fame and identity. Smith is clever not to ever name the narrator, because I think one of the overwhelming themes in this book is how much she lives her own life and how much is spent in the shadow of Tracey, Aimee and her own mother. Smith effectively uses the contrast between the housing estate and the West African village to explore the extremes of living as a biracial person. I also thought that she brought a unique perspective to what life must be like working for a famous person, and how mercurial a lifestyle that must be. Smith is a strong writer and it is certainly a readable book.

There is no question that Smith covers a range of interesting issues in her book, but I think that as a whole, this book was missing a uniting factor. I get that part of the narrator’s problem is that she is a bit lacking in personality and relies on anchoring to other people to help propel her through life. However, where the narrator should have been the one connecting the experiences of being a friend, a personal assistant and a daughter, she ultimately just wasn’t engaging enough as a character to bring the whole story together. I think if the story had been just about having a troubled best friend, or just an overbearing mother, or just a egocentric boss – it might have been able to firm up and tease out the narrative a bit more. However, as it is, the narrator just feels a bit like a leaf in the breeze and just a little too complacent about where her life goes to be able to find any meaning.

A well-written book that tackles a lot of interesting issues that ultimately doesn’t have the connecting factor to propel the story.

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Eggshell Skull

Memoir about working for and seeking justice in the Australian legal system

Content warning: sexual assault, trauma, mental illness, eating disorders, sexism

I’ve mentioned a couple of times a book club we kicked off at my work where we put together a list of books and everyone read as many as they could. There was a bit of a flurry of book lending, and this is another book I borrowed from a colleague. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to see the author speak in Canberra last year, so I only had a general idea of what the book is about.

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“Eggshell Skull” by Bri Lee is a memoir about a law graduate who wins a prestigious job working as an associate for a Queensland Supreme Court judge. Initially, Bri is focused on trying to do a good job, to not be intimidated by the other associates and to forge a positive relationship with the judge. However, as she is exposed to more and more criminal matters through her work, especially sexual assault matters, Bri finds it harder and harder to ignore the trauma of being a survivor of sexual assault herself. Increasingly disheartened by the daily reality of how rarely perpetrators are convicted, and constantly reminded of what happened to her, Bri finds herself drinking and her bulimia worsening. Eventually she realises that unless she reports the crime that happened to her and tries her luck in a system hostile towards victims, she will never be able to move forward.

This is an excellent memoir that approaches an extremely fraught area of justice from two unique perspectives: an officer of the court, and a victim of crime. By comparing these two experiences, Lee is able to shine a keen light on the barriers to people seeking justice via the courts and how substantial those barriers were, even for someone so literate in the justice system. Lee explains how the justice system expects a perfect victim and that how, even today, it is so common for victims to be blamed for the crimes committed against them. She particularly examines the impact his has on women, who are already known to be much more likely to experience crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence than men. Lee also explains how unnavigable the legal system can be, how traumatising it is to have to have your story told and scrutinised over and over, and the stress of having to face your assailant in court.

At the very beginning of this book when I realised it was a memoir of a judge’s associate, I initially had a bit of an internal eye-roll. Having also been a law student (though admittedly a far more mediocre one than Lee), I’ll be honest – I was expecting a bit of a stereotype. However, I very quickly realised that any preconceptions I had were vastly misguided. Lee is incredibly down-to-earth and self-deprecating and has a real flair for explaining complex legal concepts in plain English that, to be frank, the legal sector desperately needs and will sorely miss. She is a very relatable narrator and as a reader, it is very easy to empathise with her desire to succeed, her struggle to overcome barriers and her journey towards a fulfilling career.

As an increasingly popular genre, I frequently reflect on whether the author has reached a balance of enough or too much information in their memoir. I think that Lee has the balance just right. She is unflinchingly honest about the impact her trauma has on her mental, emotional and physical wellbeing and details her difficulties with her eating disorder and intimacy in painful detail. However, sometimes you can tell a lot by what an author doesn’t say, and I felt like there wasn’t a superfluous sentence in the entire book. This is a book that deals with plethora of sensitive and private issues, and Lee carefully omits unnecessary personal details about the perpetrator, the judge she works for and family members while still providing strong characterisation.

I legitimately don’t have any negative things to say about this book and it is hands down the best book I have read this year so far. It is well-known that the justice system as it is is ill-equipped to deal with sexual crimes. While nobody has quite found the solution, Lee’s book goes a long way towards identifying the specific problems that the very well-educated and privileged people who often find themselves administering justice may not necessarily be aware of.

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